Wingu Tingima was a senior woman of the Pitjantjara people of the Great Victoria Desert, a vast area that stretches across southern central Australia. She grew up in the semi-nomadic tradition near her birthplace, Nyumun, close by the rock hole at Kuru Ala, W.A. She referred to her young self as a ‘bush girl’, having had no contact with European people until her family, prompted by severe drought and atomic testing in the area, walked into the mission at Ernabella. Wingu lived and worked there, spinning and weaving wool and it was there that she met Eileen Yaritja Stevens, who became her life long friend and painting colleague. When the community of Irrunytju was established in the 1980s, Wingu returned to be close to her home country. She was in her seventies by then but swiftly became one of the foremost artists at Irrunytju Arts (established in 2001). Because her friend Eileen had settled at Nyapari, Wingu lived between the two communities and painted also for Tjungu Palya Artists. The two families were close and became related by a marriage between two of their children.
The art centre of Tjungu Palya (meaning ‘good together’) provides a hub for artists from many of the surrounding settlements. They ignore to some degree the ‘whitefella borders’ that divide this red desert and spinifex region between three states. Community members planted large, shady trees and built homesteads with large verandahs, providing an oasis for painting during the hot summers. Though she only painted over the ten years before her death at the age of about 90, Wingu’s success was striking. The early years of traditional culture fed into the iconography and the mythical narratives that became her subject matter. The dexterity with materials that comes with the craft skills of desert life enabled a confidence and fluidity of style that bursts upon the canvas, with rich, mosaic-like colour and sinewy, sensuous linear elements. Wingu does not illustrate events or depict her country explicitly, but evokes and alludes to ancient imagery drawn from deep cultural knowledge. She draws upon the rock art, sand drawings and ceremonial body painting passed on to her through her elders. Her ideas for paintings would often come to her in dreams or visitations from her totemic eagle Ancestors, who could also forewarn her of significant events.
The rock hole at Kuru Ala (Wingu’s birthplace) is a sacred place for the seven sisters, Kungkarrakalpa, and is the focus of many of Wingu’s paintings. Kungkarrakalpa is a multi-layered epic of pursuit and creation. During the dreamtime, the sisters were running away from the old man Wati Nyliru, a magician (Ngankurri) who knew how to change into things and trick them. They rested by the rock hole while he surreptitiously transformed himself into a quandong tree. When the sisters tasted the fruit they knew it tasted strange. They suspected it was the magician and so continued their flight. Eventually, they flew up into the sky to escape him and became the constellation the Pleiades, while he slithered away as a snake. There are many aspects to the story and each carries a specific spiritual meaning that is embedded within the work, investing it with a compelling immediacy. Her paintings of Kungkarangkurra were chosen as finalists in NATSIA Awards in 2003, 2006 and 2008. In their years of public acclaim, Wingu and her friend Eileen would often travel together to the cities for exhibitions openings and, like their art works, their characters complimented each other well - Wingu, reserved and reflective, speaking in a rhythmic, almost oracular voice, and Eileen, ebullient and effusive, seeming often larger than life (Nicholas Rothwell). Their success enabled them to become the financial mainstay for their families and they passed their artistic skills on to several of their grandchildren.
Wingu’s work can today be found in the state and national galleries of Australia as well as in international collections. It is often included in landmark shows such as ‘I have a dream’, a tribute to Martin Luther King Jnr held in New York City in 2009, a year before her passing. She was considered a master of colour, knowing instinctively how to create effects through layers and texturing that make her works comparable to the depth and beauty of the star-filled desert skies.
Profile author: Sophie Pierce